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A student’s guide to living in Boston
Ask any Bostonian their favorite thing about the city and you're destined to get dozens of different answers – depending on which neighbourhood they live in, the time of year, and what the weather is like that day.
Bostonians may be a little hard to pin down, but that’s because there’s a lot to see and do in the city, and some might say residents are spoiled - with Colonial cobblestone streets, championship sports teams, and lots of free things to do all year round.
Boston is one of the oldest cities in the United States, founded by Puritans in 1630, and the architecture and vibe is a mix of old-world style and buzzing, high-tech culture. After all, greater Boston is home to hundreds of technology and biotech companies, 35 colleges and universities and more than 150,000 college students.
Boston’s public transport – Or how to ride the subway (the T)
Locals call the subway the ‘T’, which is short for ‘MBTA’, but if you ask for directions to the subway everyone will understand what you mean.
Rush hour can be crowded and there are often short delays, but it's still the most cost-efficient way to get around. During rush hour (7:00am – 10:00am and about 4:00pm – 7:00pm), it's also faster than driving or taking an Uber or taxi, as Boston traffic is some of the worst in the country and the small streets get jam-packed with slow-moving cars.
Here's what you need to know to navigate Boston’s public transport, the country's oldest subway system – which saw the first car travel beneath Tremont Street in 1897.
There are five lines
- Red: runs from Cambridge in the north to South Boston and Quincy in the South. It's often the most crowded, and the line to take if you want to reach Harvard Square or the many restaurants in Somerville.
- Green: has four branches that run below and above ground, heading west to Fenway Park, Boston University, Boston College, Brookline and Newton. All stops west of Kenmore Square are located outside, where the train cars operate more like a trolley, stopping every one to two blocks
- Orange: connects the north and south from Malden and Bunker Hill Community College in the north, down through Chinatown and Jamaica Plain.
- Blue: is the least used line and will transport you from downtown to the aquarium, airport and to East Boston and Revere Beach.
- Silver: don't be confused, the silver line is actually a bus line (not a subway car) but it can be accessed via the South Station subway entrance. It will take you to the Seaport or to Logan Airport much quicker than the blue line if you are coming from downtown.
‘Inbound’ versus ‘outbound’
It will seem confusing at first but after a few weeks you'll master navigation.
‘Inbound’ means the train is going into the city in the direction of Downtown Crossing and points beyond, while ‘outbound’ means it's going away from Downtown to the outermost destinations. Be mindful when entering the subway stations, as some entrances only lead to trains going in one direction, so make sure you check the sign before entering and paying your fare or you'll end up going the wrong way.
This is especially true for popular stops including Central Square and Kendall Square on the red line, and Copley Square on the green line, as well as others.
Buy a Charlie Card
That's the name of the subway pass which you can load with cash value or a monthly pass for subway and bus rides.
Boston transportation is confusing, so take note – you can't purchase a plastic Charlie Card from the automated machines in the subway stations. The machines do allow you to purchase paper tickets which are good for one to five rides (depending on how much you pay). But if you are in Boston more than a few days, seek out a proper Charlie Card. Each ride is slightly cheaper if you use the plastic card, which can be purchased from a ticket booth in Downtown Crossing, Harvard Square, or North or South Station.
Alternatively, ask one of the red-shirted MBTA Ambassadors, who are present in most of the major stations and they will hand you a plastic card which you can then load with money at the automated machines.
Where to shop for essentials to set up your life in Boston
Boston is compact. You’ll find nearly everything you need within greater Boston or just a few miles outside the city limits.
However, if you need to make a big shopping trip for a carful of supplies, it’s easier to rent a car and drive to one of the big stores (like Target), just outside the city.
Newbury and Boylston Streets
These streets run parallel to each other in the Back Bay neighbourhood and are easily accessible by the subway’s green line.
The streets run from Arlington Street near the Public Garden down to Mass Avenue. The shops near the garden are high-end boutiques, but there are plenty of stores where you can fit out your room or apartment without breaking the bank.
T.J. Maxx is discount retailer with locations scattered around the city, but the store at the corner of Newbury and Mass Avenue is most convenient for those near BU and BC. The massive Urban Outfitters across the street has dorm essentials like inflatable chairs, futons and funky shower curtains.
You’ll find everyday supplies at MUJI (the Japanese retailer that sells everything from stationery to plastic storage units) nearby on Newbury Street.
This is where you’ll likely end up at night if you’re looking for cocktails or sushi restaurants, but by day, the area is packed with shoppers and people hunched over their laptop at cafés. Here’s where you’ll find discount towels, rugs or kitchen items at T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, or stop in Primark for super affordable clothing and small home accessories.
There’s also a Macy’s department store and dozens of clothing stores in blocks of streets that make up the Downtown Crossing neighbourhood.
For everything else
If you are looking to furnish your entire apartment, there is an Ikea about 40 minutes south of Boston by car. However, it’s easier to order online and pay a small fee to have them ship everything.
For a large, one-stop selection of everything from storage essentials to bathroom supplies, food, and clothing, Target is the best bet. The larger stores in Somerville, South Boston and Medford require a car, but there are a few smaller locations that are accessible via the T in Fenway, Porter Square and Central Square. But be warned, the selection is limited at these urban stores.
How to spend your first week and month in Boston
Boston is one of the oldest cities in the United States and is packed with historical monuments, pretty cobblestone streets, and lots of live music and free things to do.
In between orientations and setting up your home or dorm room, be sure to take some time to explore the city during your first weeks.
Get to know your local neighbourhood
First, find your go-to spots for food, coffee and cafes with WiFi.
The neighbourhoods around Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University and Boston College are packed full of everything you’ll need, whether you are an undergrad, grad student or in Boston doing post-doc work.
Alternatively, if you’re in Cambridge near Harvard or MIT, check out Kendall and Central Square for grocery stores, cafés, bars and casual restaurants. Harvard Square has a large selection of clothing shops, especially chain brands and more upscale restaurant choices, though you will find a few burger joints and vegetarian options.
After you’ve settled in, take a day to play tourist and see the city on foot. A good place to start is in the centre at Boston Common, near the Park Street T stop.
From there you can walk over to the Public Garden, which is filled with landscaped grounds, a small pond and resident swans who live there spring through early fall. Then head to historic Beacon Hill with cobblestone streets, gas streetlamps and cosy cafes.
Tatte Café & Bakery on Charles Street is a good choice to check out Boston’s brunch obsession, but it does get extremely crowded on weekends (there’s also an equally buzzing location in Harvard Square). Venture to the other side of the park and walk to Copley Square where you’ll check off several landmark sightings including Trinity Church, the Boston Marathon finish line, and the Boston Public Library, which is the oldest public library in the country and one of the prettiest and quietest places to study in the city. Get a library card for WiFi access.
Alternatively, the touristy yet informative Duck Tours (where you’ll cruise down city streets and into the Charles River on a combo land/water vehicle) is a good way to get a quick overview of the city. The guides are super opinionated, and in addition to getting a history lesson, you’ll also come away with a better sense of Boston’s dry and often confusing sense of humor.
Go beyond central Boston and Cambridge
In the fall and spring check out the nearby green spaces for a nature walk.
The Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain (accessible via the Orange Line) is a massive landscaped park where you can catch fall foliage in September and October and spring blooms in April in May.
Learn what’s on
Be sure to take advantage of all the free tours and activities going on in the city.
You can tour the massive, gold-domed State House Monday to Friday.
The Freedom Trail is a fun activity for a sunny afternoon, with 16 historic locations along two and a half miles across Downton Boston, the North End and Charlestown. And there are plenty of stops for food along the way, too.
Download the app or follow the red brick trail in the sidewalk to see Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church, Boston Massacre site, the city’s oldest cemeteries, and the USS Constitution, among others.
Many museums including the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), and Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum are free with student ID any time or free one night a week.
How to survive driving in Boston
Several recent studies have declared Boston one of the worst cities in the Unites States for driving a car. While the city doesn’t have many fatal car accidents, there are quite a few fender benders (small accidents where vehicles involved are only slightly damaged).
Small streets are overcrowded with cars, the average drive time for commuters is 30 to 45 minutes, and drivers are notably quirky.
The city is famous for drivers who don’t use their turn signal and will aggressively pass cars on the right on the highway (in the rest of the country drivers typically speed up and pass in the left-hand lane).
Even though driving can be frustrating, there are times when it’s far more efficient to drive, especially if you have a work study or internship program located in one of the many office parks outside the city along Highway 95.
In addition, if you want to spend an afternoon picking up home supplies from box stores like Target or need to run errands, a car is easier and faster than trying to lug bags full of goods on the subway.
Here’s how to make driving in Boston less frustrating.
Use a navigation app
Roads in Boston were not designed with modern drivers in mind (many were cow paths during Colonial times).
Google Maps or Waze with voice direction will help you navigate headaches like one-way streets and traffic circles that have multiple exits. The highways around the city often have left-hand exits and street signs don’t always announce exits until it’s too late to change multiple lanes.
Beware Storrow Drive
Be on the lookout during student move-in week in early September.
The access road that runs along the Charles River has several very low underpasses, and large trucks, including moving trucks, do not fit on the road. Even though there are signs along the entrance ramp, once or twice a year moving trucks get stuck and traffic backs up for hours.
Rush hour traffic is a normal part of life
Expect a trip of only three to five miles to take 30 to 40 minutes on weekdays.
To avoid aggressive drivers, drive with slower traffic in the middle or right-hand lane, using the left hand lane to speed up and pass only.
Rent a car
Instead of buying one. Unless you need to drive daily, it’s much less stressful to use a car only when you need it.
Most apartment complexes charge more (typically $150 to $300) to rent a parking space. And much of the housing in the urban areas, including near BU, BC, Harvard or MIT don’t have parking, meaning you’ll need to deal with street parking on small roads that are often jam packed with cars parked bumper to bumper along the curb.
The city has more than enough rental car companies, making it easy to rent one for an occasional outing. However, most companies charge an additional ‘young renter fee’ to anyone under the age of 25.
You’ll also need a valid license and a credit or debit card in your name. There’s also a service called Zipcar that you can join for a small monthly fee ($7) and then pay per hour each time you check out a car. International drivers need a driver’s license and passport to sign up, and you’ll need to show affiliation with a college or university if you are under 21.